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Agency faulted in 5 firefighters’ deaths

Times Staff Writers

The U.S. Forest Service failed to follow a series of safety protocols before five federal firefighters died in an arson-set wildfire near Palm Springs in October, according to a report released Thursday by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The federal labor agency found six “serious” health and safety violations that put the firefighters in peril by “exposing them to hazardous conditions of a burnover,” the report says.

The crew of Engine Co. 57 arrived at an isolated knoll in the San Jacinto Mountains at night, had no maps of the area and were positioned in front of the wind-driven fire and at the top of a grassy slope -- situations considered major hazards when fighting wildfires, the report stated.

“The fire festered in the drainage below the firefighters’ position leaving Engine 57 in an indefensible position,” the report states. The crew had also not been properly briefed on the fire situation, the Santa Ana wind conditions and danger areas, the report says.

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Forest Service spokesperson Allison Stewart declined to comment on the OSHA report, saying the agency had not had a chance to review it.

“Our Forest Service safety staff and fire management team will review it, and we have the opportunity presented by OSHA for an informal conference, and that may take place at that point in the future,” Stewart said.

The report is not intended to cast blame for the deaths, said Roger Gayman, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor.

“The real bottom line is OSHA and the Forest Service will hopefully work together to prevent tragedies like this in the future.... It’s not about providing a scapegoat,” he said.

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Overall, the Forest Service failed to comply with three of 10 “standard fire orders” and six of 18 “watch-out situations” listed in the Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations, the safety protocols for fighting wildfires, according to the report.

OSHA’s findings come almost two months after an investigation by state and federal fire officials determined that deadly miscalculations, unpredictable fire behavior and a misguided decision to save homes in the path of a fast-moving wildfire led to the deaths of the Forest Service crew.

That report also found that the vacation home the firefighters were trying to save when they were killed had been classified as “nondefensible” by state fire officials in a 2002 report. That information was not communicated to the firefighters when they were sent to the remote Twin Pines community.

Both reports have received a lot of attention from firefighting agencies throughout the state.

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“This was a tragic situation when five brave, wonderful people died. We want to know everything that led to it,” said Terry McHale, a policy director for the union that represents firefighters at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“I will say, it’s a lot easier to review a fire than to fight the fire. When you’re looking at it from photographs and your desk, it’s a lot different than being out there and fighting the fire,” he said, noting that he was not critical of OSHA’s report.

A Beaumont auto mechanic has been charged with setting the so-called Esperanza fire and killing the five firefighters.

Raymond Lee Oyler, 36, is accused of lighting 21 additional fires in the San Gorgonio Pass area last year. Riverside County Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco has said he will seek the death penalty when the trial begins, probably next year.

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OSHA found the violations after conducting an investigation into the work-related factors of the fatalities.

Forest Service officials will have the opportunity to meet with OSHA to discuss the violation notices, including corrective measures.

sara.lin@latimes.com

jonathan.abrams@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.


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